Pick Up Parties and Pruning: Ventura County’s Lester and Clos des Amis

Steve suckering

“Instead of pruning, how about a pick up party?” I asked Steve Zambrano as we climbed into my car with my dog Cisco.

Steve is always interested in having new experiences and learning more about just about everything under the sun– and the moon and the stars! I’ve known Steve for at least 25 years as we both moved around the Ventura art scene, especially around Art City. He’d helped me with broadsides at Kinkos, he was a regular at poetry and other events I put on, and more. Last month he joined in the rose bottling party at Clos des Amis— where he helped bottle under the tutelage of one of his former Ventura College art instructors, Bruce Freeman.

Give it to Steve, asking him to a pick up party didn’t phase him one bit. In fact Steve is the kind of guy who hangs out in Hollywood with a porn star with a huge handmade sign hawking fake “Maps to the Homes of (Porn) Stars” just to get a response. 

But this wasn’t THAT kind of pick up party.

Wine clubs, I explained to Steve on the drive out to Santa Paula, are a popular D2C (Direct To Consumer) way for wineries to get their wines into the glasses of people who appreciate them. For a winery, these wine clubs are a subscription which provides a guaranteed flow of income– kind of how a CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture) program works for farmers, but instead of course for wineries. What they also get is convenience: wine arrives by schedule and the member doesn’t have to give it a thought as long as that credit card keeps working!

Generally people will join a wine club when they visit a winery to get free tastings and a discount that day.

In the future, these new Wine Club members then benefit from pick up parties and other events, as well as discounts on purchases.

Wine Club members get advanced notice and they also have access to wines that members of the general public can’t get– including limited bottling and library wines. Being on a winery’s mailing list can also confer some of these benefits– or email list members can get an earlier notice than other customers that stumble on the deal at the winery or on a website or some form of advertising.  

However COVID’s lockdowns limited access to wineries, cancelled pick up parties, and dismissed treasured special events. How were wineries to maintain their Wine Clubs or expand them during the pandemic?

And forget about just showing up at a winery for a tasting– while some wineries allow walk-ins, many now require reservations, so you better call first. 

In last week’s 2021 SVB Annual Direct-to-Consumer Wine Report Virtual Event” Rob McMillan, EVP & Founder, Silicon Valley Bank Wine Division, and his panelists discussed this and more. He urges wineries to move away from the tasting room model which he says is broken. While a viable source of revenue, most winery are overly dependent on it.

However, email open rates went through the roof during COVID with two thirds of online sales coming from email.

Tidbit: Nike is 40% direct to consumer sales!

screen shot from SVB Wine Report May 2021

In the presentation from the slide above, I also learned that almost 10% of people who made an appointment to visit a winery became a member! So while COVID may have made dropping by a tasting room less convenient, for wineries it sure looks like it’s a winning proposition. More to come about what I learned but for now, let’s get back to pruning and pick up parties!

Recently, a friend posted pictures on Facebook about her Lester Family Cellars pick up party, and then another friend, Kristen Schubert (who is also a member of the US Wine Tasting Team) invited me to join her there for celebration following taking her WSET 3 test that day. As Lester is located a quick drive from my house, I decided it was about time to visit. 

While we were tasting through the wines– a refreshing Sauvignon Blanc, a juicy Malbec, a fine Cab Sauv, and an exciting Petit Sirah– the winemaker came in from his drive from Paso Robles where he’d been checking on the vines where he purchases grapes and putting in some time pruning and leaf pulling to ensure the best harvest possible. 

While my tasting was comped, and while I found the petit Sirah delightful and delicious, I purchased a bottle of their zinfandel —  one of the final two bottles left! 

Since I wasn’t there “officially” I won’t say much more about Lester until I conduct a more formal tasting and interviews, but I can say that this is a great addition to the Ventura County wine scene and that the tasting room is located not far off the 101 freeway on the southern outskirts of Ventura off Johnson drive less than a mile from the freeway. It’s truly family run — I met three members of the family while I was there!

A few days later found me at Clos des Amis with Steve for their pick up party. While Lester is small with about 1000 cases produced a year from fruit sourced in Los Angeles and Paso Robles counties, Clos des Amis is even smaller– with about 600 cases made from mostly Ventura County estate fruit. Lester has a full on tasting room, with plans too expand their warehouse facility into the unit next door.

Tasting at Clos des Amis reminds me of how it used to be when I worked at Ridge: pouring wine outside at a big picnic table. 

The Wine Club at Clos des Amis is still brand new and quite small, I told Steve, they started it not long before COVID which means not too many opportunities for pick up parties or to offer tastings where they’d get more members.  They do have a pretty good mailing list garnered from years of pouring at various events where people have fallen in love with their wines which combine Bruce’s artistry and passion for the Ventura County terroir with his French background, palate, and desire to produce pure, natural wines that have minimal intervention and minimal impact on the planet. 

So after tasting through this month’s Clos des Amis Wine Club wines — zesty Sauvignon Blanc, estate rose of Mourvedre and Grenache, and a Paso Robles merlot— and chatting with members, Steve, Cisco, and I bounced our way up the rough dirt road to the old vineyard. I’m not sure why but I really love it there. It could be the rocky white limestone soils, the short rows, the refreshingly tasty tangerines, the steep hillside that offers rewarding views of the Heritage Valley and the Santa Clara River… 

Steve is a quick learner: engaged and enthusiastic. He also LOVES gardening and getting plants to grow. For my birthday this year he gave me a datura from a cutting that he grew over several months after learning I desired one after a vengeful neighbor cut mine down. 

The easiest and most obvious task, I told him, was getting the suckers. Anything on the trunk of the vine below the Y has got to go. Next, check to see that the vines are growing up. If they’re headed to hell, they gotta go; we’re more interested in vines headed toward high-water. Vines that are wandering? Help them find their way and lace them between the wires.

I explained the importance of air flow, and how to create that by removing extra leaves that might block the cool air coming off the Pacific Ocean and flowing from the west east along the river. 

Somehow I forgot my pruners, as well as pruners for Steve, but for the most part, the vines that needed to give, gave. The vines aren’t as weak as they were in 2019 when many in California suffered from etiolation as they reached for sunny skies masked by gray.  I also pointed out that we want to check for grape flowers as well as baby grapes on the vines and to try to leave those but sometimes they get the boot– on purpose or by accident– but that the wines are prolific and will recover.

vines “hedged” by deer from the edge fo the vineyard by the avocado orchard with Cisco in the background

Along the way, we noticed that a bunch of vines were hedged — and then I realized that deer were doing the work… we’ve had such dry year there’s very little for the deer to forage. In the “new” vineyard, they’ve put in a solar powered electric fence which seems to be deterring the deer. So far so good!

Read more about Clos des Amis and Ventura County wineries and vineyards in this mostly monthly series:

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